The Howard League for Penal Reform

How to make a prison safer: It isn’t rocket science

I spent yesterday in a prison that had been identified as one of the worst in the country but in just a few months has been transformed into a much safer and busier place. The questions that need to be asked are twofold: how has this happened and how did a prison deteriorate so that teenagers were terrified to venture out of their filthy cells?

I will identify it so that readers can see the full extent of the dreadful mess the prison was in when the prison inspectors visited. Brinsford is a young offenders institute near Wolverhampton and used to hold around 570 teenagers and young adults aged 18 to 21. The inspection report is excoriating:

“These are the worst overall findings my inspectorate has identified in a single prison during my tenure as Chief Inspector. Across all of our four tests of a healthy prison, we found outcomes to be poor.”

The prison was filthy, the windows rotting, staff resorted to using force to try and keep control, staff sick rate was through the roof, violence was rife, half the boys spent all day locked in cells, courses were cancelled, the litany of failure is industrial.

It has changed. A new governor was parachuted in to sort it out. He got the boys gardening, painting, learning and active. Many of the internal gates have been removed and the workshops opened so that the young men are learning a trade and busy in education. They go to bed at night tired, so staff don’t have to implement the latest crazy missive from the Ministry to turn lights off. Use of force by staff is discouraged.

It’s not a perfect place. I was disappointed with the food as there was no fruit and few vegetables, both essential as a healthy diet for young men.

There are several reasons for the turnaround. The obvious one is a charismatic and determined governor who took time to understand the prison and then acted with courage by dismissing recalcitrant staff and getting everyone else busy. He made difficult decisions.

Secondly, the number of young prisoners has been reduced by 130 and benchmarking has increased the number of staff. This is the bit that isn’t rocket science. At a time when every other prison in the country has had its staff cut by a third, this prison has done the opposite.

When I was visiting, he refused to accept a overcrowding draft from a local prison and the bus was turned back.  The governor pointed out he was responsible for running this prison and overcrowding was beyond his control.

The Howard League published a report on staff cuts and prison overcrowding a couple of weeks ago and since then the independent monitoring board at Nottingham has warned that the prison is likely to see riots because conditions are so dreadful. Prisons across the country are becoming dangerous places for staff and prisoners. As men spill out back into the community they put us at risk of their increased violence. Two people a week are taking their own lives in prison.

The lesson is clear. A prison that is not full, that is well managed and fully staffed can be a clean, busy and safe institution.

So who is responsible for the shambles in the system? It is a difficult question to answer as there is no clear line of accountability any more. Until the creation of the behemoth NOMS there had been a director general of prisons. One person was in charge of the operational managing of 130 or so prisons. We now have a bureaucratic nightmare with ministers interfering in the decision of whether prisoners may have books sent to them or women prisoners can wear black leggings.

The answer is that ministers are responsible. Remember this, when you read that another 18-year-old on remand has taken his own life. Ministers are responsible.

July 23, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, suicide

Gang injunctions and the Serious Crime Bill

The best thing about the sinister younger siblings of the ASBO, the gang injunctions, is how rarely they are used. The scope and ease of applicability of these injunctions raise serious questions about the infringement of our civil liberties: the legislation specifically states that it is not just about gangs, it is applied to ‘groups’.

There is an important differential here, particularly for children -  if they are in a group that ‘consists of at least three people’ with ‘one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified by others as a group’ than that brings them within the scope of the legislation. This is clearly not the definition of a gang. Any sensible person would interpret it as how most teenagers congregate and dress in public, or indeed how pensioners congregate and dress in public, but of course the law is discriminatory in its intent.

Gang injunctions can be imposed on children as young as 14. The fact that the legislation exists at all is a fragrant breach of Article 15 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children have the right to meet together and to join groups and organisations.

So it is of utmost concern that the Serious Crime Bill, which is being debated in parliament today, contains provisions to extend the circumstances that gang injunctions can be imposed. Although they’ve been low in use so far, the Howard League’s legal team has represented a young man who was subjected to their horrors.

Sam was 20 when he contacted one of our solicitors. He had never been convicted of a gang related offence. He had been shot. The police imposed an interim gang-injunction on Sam without warning and without representation, claiming it was a ‘protective measure’. The sheer scope of the restrictions on his life were astonishing: he could not enter his home town – meaning he was effectively made homeless as he lived with his Mum there; he could not see, contact or even ring his partner, so he couldn’t see his son unless the child was in the care of someone else; and he was banned from contacting the majority of his friends. During this time Sam had the constant threat that even though he had done nothing wrong, if he breached any of these requirements he could be sent to prison.

As the police can impose interim gang injunctions without the authority of the court, it was a year before it was finally decided that the interim injunction on Sam was not appropriate or lawful. This was a year of a young man’s life.

Serious crime bills should tackle serious crime. Human trafficking, organised gun crime and female genital mutilation are scourges on an international scale. They are serious crimes. The unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people has no place in this bill and no place in our society.

June 16, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: anti-social behaviour, Children and young people, Government policy, Human rights, Uncategorized

How do you solve a problem like G4S and Serco?

A couple of weeks ago we handed in a dossier to the City of London Police and Metropolitan Police that listed the failures by G4S and Serco in delivering justice services. We asked them to assist the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in its ongoing investigation and called for both companies to be barred from bidding for any public service contracts until the completion of the inquiry.

Today, as shareholders gather for G4S’s annual general meeting, I can confirm I have had responses from both the Met and the City of London Police.

The senior investigating officer from the City of London Police very helpfully explained its predicament. The force is already investigating potential criminal activity by Serco relating to the delivery of prisoners to the courts. The SFO has teams of accountants that are qualified to look into possible fraud by both Serco and G4S. Both police and the SFO have to achieve a high level of proof in order to bring criminal charges. I was told that our dossier was primarily a catalogue of incompetence.

I am not so sure it is just incompetence. It seems to me that a dossier of 70 pages listing hundreds of instances of failures indicates more than incompetence. Could it be deliberate?

The reason people do things guides the way they do things. More than that, motivation is the moral compass.

The private companies that take on government contracts to deliver justice services are doing it to make money; their prime consideration is the pursuit of profit. The evidence points to practices aimed at maximising profits by cutting corners, paying low wages, stinting on training, employing too few staff, not sharing good practice with public agencies, buying cheap equipment.

The result has been years of poor delivery and incompetence. But more than this. I would argue that providing a poor service on the cheap because the company wants to increase its profits at the expense of the taxpayer and the service user amounts to criminality, whether or not it hits the courts’ required threshold.

We put together the dossier as it shows a pattern of behaviour with the tip of the iceberg possibly amounting to deliberate fraud.  This must change. We must not allow public services to sink to such dire levels in the name of profit.  The taxpayer and the citizen deserve the best.

It appears that governments will continue to commission out public services to companies whose aim is profit, in which case, we must build in higher moral expectations. I don’t know how to do this with G4S or Serco, any ideas?

June 5, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Privatisation

Judicial review reform debate in the Lords

Lord Pannick, the eminent barrister and cross-bench peer, has laid a motion of regret in relation to the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2014 which means there is to be a debate in the House of Lords on 7 May.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is extremely concerned about the impact of these changes on vulnerable people, including serving prisoners and people coming to the end of their sentences facing resettlement. Our legal team has helped hundreds of children and young people in prison to make fresh starts and prevent the creation of further victims. We have had to use judicial review in some cases in order to force authorities to provide the support these people need so they can reintegrate safely.

The changes mean that lawyers are now required to do substantial work without any guarantee of payment until their argument is ‘permitted’ by a High Court judge.

The chilling effect of these changes will not just affect individuals in need of help but will impact on the development of case law. For instance, it is doubtful that the landmark case of G v Southwark would have reached the House of Lords had these changes been in force. G, a child recently released from prison and sleeping rough in a car, called our helpline and we referred him to solicitors who brought judicial review proceedings. Permission was not granted in the High Court but the case progressed to the House of Lords where Baroness Hale gave a powerful judgment that has resulted in a sea-change in the way local authorities are required to help all homeless children, not just those released from custody. The case has saved time, money and children’s lives. It has significantly reduced the need for us to issue proceedings in similar cases.

The need for judicial review as a safety net of last resort has become even more important for prisoners since December 2013 when the Lord Chancellor removed almost all prison law from the reach of legal aid. Part of his justification for doing so was the continuing availability of judicial review (see The Gazette, 17 March 2014).

These changes to payment for judicial review, recently examined by Parliament’s expert Human Rights Committee, will have “a significant impact on access to justice because meritorious judicial review cases will not be brought” (paragraph 76 of The implications for access to justice of the Government’s proposals to reform judicial review, JCHR, 30 April 2014).

Lord Pannick’s debate is the only opportunity for peers to express their concern about these changes which affect the accessibility of judicial review, described by the Committee as ‘one of the most important means by which the Government and other public bodies are held legally accountable for the lawfulness of their decisions’ (paragraph 12).

The Committee concluded that “the significance of the measure’s implications for the right of effective access to court is such that it should have been brought forward in primary legislation, to give both Houses an opportunity to scrutinise and debate the measure in full and to amend it if necessary”. It recommended that the Government withdraw the regulations it has laid to give effect to its proposal, and introduce instead an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to provide Parliament a proper opportunity to consider and debate in detail this controversial measure (see paragraphs 80 and 81 of the JCHR report). The Parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinizing secondary legislation has also considered these regulations and raised similar concerns. Our submission to that committee is available here.

The need for Parliament to scrutinize these measures as fully as possible is underscored by the fact that they emanate from the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. As the Committee recognised, until the conflation of roles of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary has been reviewed, it is vital that the Lord Chancellor “always demonstrates his awareness of the conflict inherent in his dual roles as a political minister and as the head of the judiciary with a constitutional responsibility for upholding the rule of law”. The Howard League recognises the difficulties that the Lord Chancellor faces in demonstrating this awareness when implementing important constitutional changes through secondary legislation.

As Lord Brown commented in Lord Pannick’s debate on prison law cuts in January 2014, prisoners, “as members of a closed community uniquely subject to the exercise of highly coercive powers, far from having fewer rights of recourse to independent courts than most of us, should, rather, have at the very least equal access to justice”.

May 6, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Government policy, Human rights

Prisoners and books

The campaign to overturn the ban on books and others essentials being sent in to prisoners is gathering momentum. Today Kevin Brennan MP has a debate in Parliament and musicians, led by Billy Bragg, have called for an end to the ban on sending in guitars.

The Howard League has been consulting its prisoner members to find out what the real impact of the ban and the introduction of the new incentives scheme means on the ground. Their letters make for interesting, and sometimes bizarre reading.

In one semi-open prison the library used to be open all day but is now only open Monday to Thursday from 5.15 to 6pm, and these sessions are often cancelled if the prisoners who have been trained to run the library get called to do something else or there are insufficient numbers of staff to escort them across the establishment.

In another prison there are two libraries because vulnerable prisoners cannot share the facilities with other prisoners. This means that the book allocation is split between two sites and there are only half the books in each.

A poignant criticism comes from a prisoner who used to have clothes and underwear sent to him. Now that he has to buy his underwear from a monopoly shop that charges inflated prices, his family has to send in extra money to pay for these expensive clothes. Whereas they used to be able to buy pants from cheaper shops to send to dad, they now have to send in cash from their benefits so he can have a new pair of socks.

One prisoner said his mother used to send him a copy of his local paper so he could keep in touch with his community but he is not allowed to receive it any more.

Prisoners who are not young or within a narrow size range cannot get clothes that fit. So if men are on the larger size, they have to wear trousers that don’t do up or come up round the waist and T-shirts that don’t cover their tummies. People are given slippers as they can’t get shoes to fit. This means that grown men are slopping about in shabby clothes and slippers.

The rules are bizarre. You can’t have the original version of the DVD Get Carter because it was an 18 in 1971, but the remake from 2000, which is far more violent, was given an R rating.

The Howard League will continue its campaign to get the ban on sending in books and other essentials to prisoners. Tomorrow a devastating critique of the impact of cuts and overcrowding will be published that underscores our contention that prisons are so stretched that people are dying as result. It is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and I am warning the Government that things are going to get worse if it doesn’t change its policies.

April 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Prisons

Why it’s wrong to close secure children’s homes

The network of secure children’s homes (SCHs) yesterday published a review that shows how it achieves safer outcomes for the most damaged children than prisons or private training centres. We still lock up far too many children but for the few who are genuinely so troubled and troubling that safe custody is the only option and in their best interests, then secure children’s homes are the answer. Prison is no place for children. The G4S and Serco run training centres have a disastrous track record. Yet, the Youth Justice Board has withdrawn contracts from the secure children’s homes forcing many to close down.

The SCHs provide a safe environment with properly trained staff in high ratios and use ‘pro-social modelling’ techniques and enhanced education opportunities. The report shows that young people leave an SCH with a rise in attainment of 3.8 points in Maths and 3.2 points in English (the equivalent of over 0.5 National Curriculum levels); a year in reading age; a better relationship with learning and education; higher self-esteem in their ability; and an identity as a learner.

The government’s plans to build a Titan jail for children is a mistake for many reasons, one of which is that it concentrates entirely on education. As a former teacher I am committed to providing education, but the children need to have their mental health needs addressed, physical health improved, support for their emotional wellbeing and self-esteem, their learning and physical impairments addressed and help with fostering empathy and remorse. This is a complex pattern of services that must be delivered in a stable and safe environment with staff who are trained, skilled and who will stay the course.

In crude reoffending rates, the SCHs are twice as effective as both prisons and private centres with an average rate of reoffending lower at 43 per cent compared to 76 per cent.

Rather than having a regime and targets, the SCHs are child-centred with the young person’s well-being at the centre.
The contrast to prisons and private training centres is stark. The SCHs may be a little more expensive, but as they work, isn’t it worth it?

April 29, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Children and young people

Close Brinsford prison

The inspection report on Brinsford prison published today is one of the worst I have ever seen, and the Chief Inspector himself says it has the worst findings he has found.

The prison buildings are in disrepair with broken windows and the wings are filthy. It would cost millions to make the infrastructure safe and fit for purpose.

But more important is the terribly practices revealed by the inspection. Brinsford is a prison near Wolverhampton that holds almost 600 young men aged 18 to 20. Almost half of them are locked up all day and a third get out of their cells for about half an hour a day. The young men are locked up from Friday to Monday. They are held two to a cell designed for one person, with an unscreened toilet, so that if one needs to defecate they have to do it in front of the other.

There were 290 recorded incidents of self-injury in six months, 232 recorded use of force by staff and young men were placed into solitary confinement 403 times which could last for weeks. Punishment is used to try to control the institution and there were 1,470 adjudications in six months with evidence that an informal (and unlawful) system of punishments was being used alongside this.

Young men held in the segregation block were only allowed a shower every three days. Young men are not given enough clothing to last week and can’t get clean clothes.

Putting the lie to the Government claim that prisoners have access to the library to get books, in Brinsford only three were escorted to the library in a week.

Nearly half of the young men sentenced to custody were serving less than six months, some sentenced by magistrates to just a few weeks.

So who is responsible for this dreadful institution and its dire consequences for the young men and the increased crime inflicted on local communities as a result?

Imagine an Ofsted report on school that identified a failing institution, the secretary of state would act to close it down. So the buck stops with the secretary of state. It is not good enough to say that a new governor has been put in place, this prison is failing on every count and would require a huge investment of capital funding to repair and replace buildings as well as extra highly trained staff.

Magistrates must bear responsibility too for continuing to send young men to a place like this. They know it is failing and causing more crime and they know that the local probation service can manage these young men more effectively so reducing crime and protecting victims.

I am calling for the prison to be closed down. It is irredeemable. The report indicates that many staff are doing their best in impossible circumstances and their commitment and skills could be redeployed into the community. The secretary of state should take action to reduce crime, save public money and protect victims.

April 23, 2014 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

A damning report on Feltham

The independent monitoring board report on Feltham prison is pretty damning. Feltham holds 620 boys and young adults and had been so violent that the teenagers who were held on remand awaiting trial were to be taken out to relieve the pressure, except this does not seem to have happened. These teenagers were destined to be shipped out to adult jails across London, putting 18 and 19 year olds into cells with adults in prisons like Pentonville and Wandsworth. The government intended to move all young men aged 18 and above into adult jails but this was put on hold after the suicides of several young men. Feltham still holds a mix of children aged from 15 up to young adults of 21.

The problems highlighted by the monitoring board include continuing violence, lack of staff, untrained staff, nothing to do all day, dreadful education provision and poor relationships with staff. It could hardly be worse.

Feltham is located next to Heathrow airport where people are paid more to handle baggage than the prison officers, so it is hardly any surprise that the prison cannot recruit and is constantly understaffed. The report says that the prison is on average 30 officers short every month.

The staff inside Feltham are barely trained and don’t even have to have a GCSE, yet they are asked to do a complex and demanding job dealing with some very needy teenagers, many of whom have learning difficulties and mental health problems. The allocation of education is a shambles with one boy serving a long sentence put in a business studies class with a worksheet to explain how he was going to set up his own business.

Education is mandatory for the boys aged 15 to 17 but is only provided five half-days a week. The quality of provision has been so poor the boys are not engaged.

The officers use violent restraint, segregation and punishment hearings disproportionately on young black and minority boys, triggering resentment and perceived racism.

About 35 boys a month are recognised as being suicidal and given additional protection.

Children were placed in solitary confinement 467 times last year and young adults were held in solitary 569 times. This means being held in a bare cell for days on end with little or no interaction or activity – something that would be unlawful if a parent did it to a child.

When children and young men do try to complain they are ignored.

Feltham was rebuilt 25 years ago using modern American designs, and government argued at the time that this would be a state-of-the-art answer to young people’s offending. Sound familiar? It’s exactly what the government is now arguing it is going to build with its “secure colleges” which will inevitably go the same way, down and dangerous.

This report is damning and should be read by every youth court magistrate who even contemplates sending a boy to Feltham. Nothing could be worse or more dangerous.

April 11, 2014 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons

Dead budgies and prison rules

Chris Grayling is really getting down and dirty with the detail of prisoners’ lives as the new rules he has introduced stipulate that you can have an alive budgie but not a dead one. Prisoners have been getting in touch to tell us that the time on the phone to families has been cut to 10 minutes when the phone just goes dead.

The ban on sending in books and other essentials has received massive publicity and generated public opprobrium because of the Howard League campaign. The support of the country’s top writers for our campaign has gone alongside criticism from experts like HM chief inspector of prisons who slammed the secretary of state for justice’s propensity to micromanage prisons.

The 66 page Incentives and Earned Privileges instruction from the National Offender Management Service covers every detail of prison life and is bureaucracy gone bonkers.  Prison governors and staff will have to scour the details to ensure that the rules are being applied. They also have to refer to the links with other 22 other voluminous instructions documents which all have to be read together and cross referenced. It won’t leave them much time for doing any real work.

The instructions apply to both public sector and private prisons, even though prisons like the newly privatised Northumberland jail has just divested itself of 200 staff. How the few remaining staff, who had to deal with a major disturbance at the weekend, will find the time to search for dead budgies is a mystery.

Governors are clearly being forced to take these rules very seriously as it was a governor who raised with me his concern about the dead budgies. He was furious at the micro management of prisons emanating from the top of the Ministry of Justice that is tying senior staff into bureaucratic knots.

The new restrictions go alongside staff cuts that impede family contact and, as we know, access to libraries and learning through reading.

The regime introduced by the new ministerial team is in stark contrast to that of the first couple of years of the Coalition government when the emphasis was on work and activity. Now there is shut down, nothing goes in and nothing happens within. It is no coincidence that there have been riots every few days, and things will get worse.

April 4, 2014 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Inside prisons, Prisons

Playing games with the truth

I don’t mind having a genuine disagreement about policy issues with ministers, but when they play games with the truth I get very cross.

The Howard League and Prisoners Advice Service sought permission for a judicial review to challenge the cuts to legal aid for prisoners. This is serious stuff and affects the lives of some highly vulnerable people and our two charities have a right to question the legality and probity of the decision. I won’t go into the legal arguments here because we have set out our case already.

What has annoyed me is the comment from the minister for legal aid, Shailesh Vara. He said to the Press Association:  “Legal aid should be used for addressing genuine injustices – not as an issue for campaigning by pressure groups or for minor complaints from prisoners that can be fairly dealt with by other means. We welcome this judgment, which rejects the notion these changes are unfair or unlawful. It is regrettable we had to spend more taxpayers’ money making these points in court.”

A pregnant woman sent to prison on remand for shoplifting food for her children will no longer get legal aid to fight the decision to separate her from her baby as soon as it is born. I don’t think, Mr Minister, that this is a minor complaint.

A child facing destitution on release from prison will no longer get legal aid to challenge the failure of the local authority to find him a roof over his head and a few pennies for food. Mr Minister, that’s not a minor complaint.

Pressure groups and charities have challenged central and local government decision making across a wide range of policies and sometimes the courts find they have just cause, and sometimes the courts find against them. Testing government decisions makes this country a democracy. Mr Minister, do you want a country that does not support the citizen to challenge the state?

Furthermore, it is simply not true that any taxpayers’ money has been spent by the government on this case. As the charities lost, we are liable for the costs. But perhaps the Minister doesn’t know how the law works.

We have, it is true, decided to appeal, but that will cost nothing more to either side as the appeal will be decided by a judge on the paperwork with no court hearing. If we are granted permission and if we win the case, it is true that the taxpayer will bear the cost, but if we lose, the charities bear the full cost. And, whilst it is a significant sum for charities, it is paltry in government terms.

All this from the Legal Aid minister who tried to claim £1,500 on his expenses for costs incurred before he was elected.


March 20, 2014 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized